“As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow…He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘My father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.”
I think it’s fair to say that this passage of Ikemefuna’s death brought chills to the reader’s spine and an anguish to the reader’s heart. Out of a pang of fear, Okonkwo chose to partake in his own pseudo-son’s extermination despite Obierika’s strong suggestion otherwise.
What I find most tragic about this passage is the sort of character reflection of Okonkwo in Ikemefuna. Ikemefuna is an innocent victim, as he is ripped apart from his family for a crime committed by his father. Like Okonkwo, Ikemefuna rises above the unfortunate legacy of his father and makes a name for himself in his new home despite his young age. Ikemefuna is portrayed as an intelligent budding man, a role-model for Nwoye, and a beloved member of the family whom even Okonkwo inwardly develops fondness for. Although the village seemingly forgets about Ikemefuna’s presence, the village accepts the pair’s relationship as father and son, as gathered by Obierika’s response to Ikemefuna’s ordered death:
“Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him…But I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father.”
Okonkwo’s decision to defy Obierika’s opinion in addition to delivering the fatal blow shows the reader that Okonkwo’s method of coping with loss is violence and the removal of his emotions. The second he became overwhelmed with fear, he reacted with violence. For several days after, Okonkwo berated himself for the depression that shrouded over him. Although Okonkwo acts out based on his fear of how society views him, he is ultimately the only one who doubts his masculinity. We get a clearer picture of Okonkwo’s internal psychological struggle when he attacks Obierika for not participating in the killing of Ikemefuna:
“But someone had to do it. If we were all afraid of blood, it would not be done.”
Okonkwo in this passage becomes defensive of his actions, as he seeks affirmation in Obierika and instead receives criticism. Okonkwo implies that Obierika is not a man, but in reality, it is Okonkwo who needs outward confirmation of his masculinity as opposed to Obierika’s internalized acceptance of what it means to be a man.
(Obierika): “If the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.”
Achebe drives home the irony of Okonkwo’s character when Okonkwo’s self-doubt leads him to commit the most cowardly and least-masculine crime of all in society’s eye: the taking of his own life.
From the first mention of Ikemefuna, the reader has a foreboding sense of his fate, especially as Achebe continually drops us hints. As he describes Ikemefuna as “ill fated” (17), “whose sad story is still told in Umuofia to this day” (22), the reader immediately puts their guard up against Ikemefuna as a character: it is easier to accept his fate if we remain detached.
However, as Ikemefuna grows up and charms the village with his many stories, identifying with his curious spirit becomes inevitable. Especially in his role as storyteller, Ikemefuna is relatable to everyone, as he offers well-needed relief from the hard pace of agricultural life.
While Ikemefuna met his fate very early on in life, his stories transcended his death, especially because of their influence on Nwoye. According to multiple online baby naming databases, the name Ikemefuna in Igbo means “may your strength not be in vain.” I believe Achebe intentionally picked this name for Ikemefuna’s character, not just to represent the strength he had in becoming accustomed to a new village and family, but to foreshadow the strength he would give Nwoye.
Nwoye, as told through the eyes of Okonkwo, is weak and “girlish”, but his actions speak to his strong spirit. As the readers, we are told that something “something seemed to give way” (85) in Nwoye when he realized his father had killed his best friend. This separation, paired with the influence of Ikemefuna’s stories and friendship, relieved him from the stress of living up to his father’s expectations. When Nwoye is drawn to the stories of the Christians, he acts on his interest, rather than cowering from his father, as he would have if Ikemefuna had still been alive to set an example as the ‘ideal son’.
While Ikemefuna’s death was tragic, he was rightfully named—his strength truly wasn’t in vain. Because of Ikemefuna’s friendship and stories that kept Nwoye hopeful, Nwoye was able to embody a form of strength that Okonkwo could never possess: the ability to defy the status quo engrained in him, to become his own man.
Maybe this quiet form of strength is more prevalent than it appears— we see it reappear in the snide comments of Ekwefi (56), in the resilience of Uchendu losing 22 children, and throughout the adjustments of the village after foreign invasion. And maybe the strength Okonkwo embodies is not strength at all, but leads to his fateful death, while the rest of the village ‘holds things together’.